John Harlow – The brilliant misfit who changed the media world

mike wilsonIn this guest post, Mike Wilson recalls John Harlow, the iconoclast who shook up the media planning world with the launch of Naked Communications.

It’s always hard writing a piece like this, when you know that most Mumbrella readers won’t have known John personally, who was just yet another Pom leading light in the industry. It’s also hard, because everyone will also know someone, or know of someone, who has died far too young – just 45 in John’s case – and who has been devastated by alcoholism.

John and I wrote the original agreement to open Naked Australia on the back of a beer coaster, taken from the Shelbourne Hotel in Sydney’s Kent Street. This gesture wasn’t meant to be cool, or funny, but it was meant to be just a little bit subversive. (And of course ironic, as we knew full well that the sorts of people who do deals on beer mats are, by and large, self-important buffoons). We were sitting across the road from the WPP office where I worked, the beer mat serving as my trigger to leave the multi-national world and embark on a new start-up adventure. And sitting in reception, waiting for the cue, was a hungry, turbo-talented 25 year old called Mat Baxter (now CEO of UM)…

Together with his visionary partners, Jon Wilkins, and Will Collin, John Harlow walked out of a multi-national agency in London, in 2000, and they set up on their own. Determined to prove that there was a better way than the prevailing model which peddled pre-determined ad agency creative solutions, or shoe-horned boring traditional content into pre-booked media slots, with scant regard for client need, Naked was born.

John Harlow

John Harlow – taken during his brief time at The Brand Agency in Perth

I’d actually known John since the late eighties as we were starting our careers in London media agencies. He was at Abbott Mead and very early on established a reputation as one of the industry’s finest young minds, as well as someone who enjoyed the accompanying trappings, perhaps more than most.

John was truly fanatical about popular culture and especially music; he trained as a young violinist, and became a talented and obsessive synth player, aspiring madly to follow in the footsteps of OMD, (the band, not the agency). Readers of a certain vintage will know the band Orange Juice, and their singer/guitarist Edwyn Collins , whom John idolized.

He would characteristically raise an eyebrow, I think, at the recent Publicis/Omnicom merger. The inexorable march towards the industry’s new goal – Efficiency – would have bemused him. That seemingly exclusive focus flies in the face of just about everything John believed in. He never deviated, in work or life, from core principles – the pursuit of creativity; doing things differently; challenging the status quo.

His passing serves as a poignant reminder of the way so many talented young people in the industry become compromised as their efficiency-driven bosses’ urge them to produce average work, for average returns. It’s why they become disillusioned, and it’s why they leave. And it’s the opposite of everything John stood for.

Few starters join the creative community with the ambition of working for a holding company, or aspiring to be the most ‘efficient’; John Harlow understood this. It’s why (with Jon and Will) they coined the term ‘brilliant misfit’ to describe the proto-typical Naked employee, a term that endures in the company’s culture.

Sadly, fate has shown that John also spent a bit too much time in the fast lane; the stories I have about that used to be funny, but now they’re not. He’s not the first, and I fear that that he won’t be the last either. His journey can serve as a warning light, though. I know some others who could go down the same path, and I’m sure you do too. Look out for them, because I can assure you that you won’t ever want to write a piece like this about one of your good friends.

Back at the Shelbourne, I remember asking John what was the real driving force behind the plans to open Naked in Australia; was it the local market opportunity, the gateway to Asia, the entrepreneurial spirit of young Australians….? ‘No, mate’, he said, ‘we want to be here because this is the best country in the world. One day I want to retire here, sit by the Margaret River, write a book and drink red wine’.

Fearless and passionate, John will never get to achieve that ambition, and he will be very, very missed.

Along with Mat Baxter and Adam Ferrier, Mike Wilson co-founded Naked Communications Australia. He stepped down as chairman last month



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